Tag Archives: IOM

Search and Rescue: A necessary presence in the Mediterranean as long as people are drowning

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This blog series first appeared on the Border Criminologies blog, and is re-posted here. Kyrre Lind is a field worker and spokesperson and Head of program department MSF Norway. This is the fourth instalment of the themed series on the humanitarian Search and Rescue, from the Nordic perspective. 

The Italian Coast Guard rescues migrants bound for Italy. Photo: Francesco Malavolta/IOM

Last night when I wrote this piece, the search and rescue ship Ocean Viking rescued 92 people, including pregnant women and small babies, from an overcrowded rubber boat 30 nautical miles from the coast of Libya. Many of the survivors suffered from hypothermia and seasickness, and many were extremely weak and saturated in fuel.

Doctors without Borders (MSF) and SOS MEDITERRANEE have since august 2019 rescued over 1,500 people at sea in the central Mediterranean. In 2019, 14,876 people reached Malta or Italy by sea, while 771 deaths were recorded. In 2019, more than 2,000 people were evacuated from Libya by UNHCR, to Niger, Rwanda, different European countries and Canada. At the same time, the Libyan coastguard forced more than 9,000 border crossers back. About 3,000 – 5,000 remain trapped in official detention centres in Libya.

In August 2019, MSF returned to sea as people were drowning. Our actions were directed at saving their lives. We intervened because the conflict raged in Tripoli and ever more migrants and refugees were losing their lives in Libya. Throughout the second half of 2019, it often took days and weeks before assignment of a place of safety for the people we rescued. There is no established, predictable system for disembarkation of people from rescue ships and boats.

From our perspective as participants in the search and rescue, there seems to be little indication that NGO boats are a pull factor from the countries of origin. We see that reasons for leaving home are manifold. For those who already planned to cross the Mediterranean when they set on their journey, Europe is the real pull factor. They hope to obtain protection, security, a better life and a good job. However, there are also long-established migration routes from West Africa and Sudan to Libya and not everyone planned to cross the Mediterranean when they first set out on their journey. Many people we encountered tell us that they just wanted to get a job. Libya has for a long time been a country that hosts guest workers from African countries and others. The fact of the matter is that today Libya is a fragile country ravaged in civil war: lawless conditions make it easier to get a job without paperwork, but also increase the risk of exploitation and abuse. Yet, many take the chance and try to get a job in Libya.

What people tell us aboard the Ocean Viking is that the situation in Libya is the main reason why they are trying to leave the country. People tell us about war horrors, brutal violence, gross exploitation and slavery-like work conditions. Our medical staff on-board Ocean Viking see wounds and scars from beatings, cuts, burns and gunshots, the consequences of sexualized violence, and illnesses related to unhygienic living conditions. EU reports confirm how bad the situation is. IOM has expressed strong concerns about the situation and has asked for a completely new approach in the region. The people we meet say they would rather risk their lives at sea than stay in Libya.

Norway, the country where I come from, receives quota refugees from Libya (450 in 2019), and at the same time supports transit reception centres in Rwanda. However, Norway, via the EU, also supports the Libyan coastguard, which is forcibly returning people to Libya. Back on land, most of them are sent straight back to detention centres – back to the very same detention system MSF have consistently called for people to be evacuated from. Absurdly, and shamefully Norwegian politics is currently helping a few to get out of a terrible situation, while at the same time contributing to pushing people back to that very same conditions.

From where I stand, the narrative that our search and rescue activities are a pull factor for migration seems oversimplified. It is a tool used to defend the present politics, which is failing to solve the humanitarian crisis in the central Mediterranean Sea.

The COVID-19 Resettlement Freeze: Towards a Permanent Suspension?

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This text was originally posted on the UNSW Kaldor Centre blog and is-reposted here. The post also appears as part of the PRIO blog series Beyond the COVID Curve.

Migrants boarding the bus headed towards the processing center in Amman, Jordan 2015. Photo: IOM/Muse Mohammed via Flickr

The COVID-19 pandemic has triggered the suspension of international resettlement for refugees. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Migration (IOM), resettlement-related travel will resume as soon as prudence and logistics permit. Meanwhile, individuals and families that were set to go are in limbo for the foreseeable future. However, this is not the first time that resettlement has been suspended on account of a public health emergency – and it may not be the last.

Before the pandemic, it was already clear that resettlement would struggle to make the comeback predicted at the 2016 UN Summit for Refugees and Migrants. There had been a sharp decline in resettlement to the US, which historically took the largest number of resettled refugees, and resettlement had been suspended altogether in some traditional receiving countries, such as Denmark in 2017. There was also the manifest unwillingness of the European Union (EU) and its member states to redistribute refugees hosted by Greece and Italy during the influx from Syria in 2015–16, and the EU’s push for emergency resettlement in African states rather than the EU.

Yet, the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement as a durable solution – rather than an obligation under international law – has long caused strong and seemingly sudden fluctuation in resettlement numbers for a variety of reasons. Therefore, it is far too early to assert the ‘death of resettlement’. Rather, it’s the time to revisit key debates to provide pointers on resettlement post-COVID-19.

A volatile instrument of refugee governance: discretion and historical shocks

Resettlement does not entail a firm set of obligations under international law. Resettlement is one of three non-hierarchical durable solutions for refugees. According to the definition used by UNHCR, resettlement involves the selection and transfer of refugees from a state in which they have initially sought protection to a third state that has agreed to admit them with permanent residence status. The actual mechanisms of the resettlement process are largely unregulated by the 1951 Refugee Convention.

The discretionary nature of resettlement means that there is a lack of harmonisation as to who will be resettled across resettling countries. Groups prioritised by one country – for example women at risk or LGBTI refugees – may not be on the priority list of others. Moreover, there is a gap between UNHCR statistics on refugees put forward for resettlement and those who actually have been physically moved by the various receiving countries. Therefore, one should execise caution when reading resettlement statistics.

Furthermore, given the discretionary nature of refugee resettlement, numbers have varied significantly over time in response to external shocks. For example, the 1980s saw a decline in resettlement. This followed a nearly 40 year-period in which resettlement was the preferred durable solution of UNHCR and states for many refugee populations (though not for African refugees). Western states became increasingly reluctant to resettle people whom they considered to be ‘would-be economic migrants’. In addition, the end of the Cold War saw a shift towards temporary protection and repatriation instead of resettlement. By the mid-1990s, however, UNHCR sought to reframe resettlement as a humanitarian act, and argued in a seminal report that it was a strategic instrument of international protection by states. The clearer doctrinal separation between refugees and migrants, and the provision of ‘soft law’ guidance to states, contributed to a resurgence of refugee resettlement from the mid-1990s.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks led to a significant decline in resettlement, particularly in the US. Prior to 9/11, processing time averaged one year; after 9/11, it stretched to a two- to three-year process. Immediately after 9/11, the number of refugees resettled in the US plummeted—from more than 73,000 in 2000 to less than 30,000 in fiscal years 2002 and 2003, as the Bush administration developed more stringent security screening protocols. These protocols remained in place through the Obama administration, and were expanded under the Trump administration’s ‘extreme vetting’ protocols.

Health concerns, such as COVID-19, have also been a reason why resettlement has been delayed or suspended. With regards to infectious diseases, stigma and the fear of contagion has affected the willingness of states to resettle refugees. For example, UNHCR has decades of experience in trying to overcome medical bans to resettle HIV-positive refugees. In 2014, and noting the lack of a public health rationale, UNHCR reported that some resettlement selection missions to Ebola-affected regions in West Africa had been cancelled. Australia went as far as to suspend humanitarian visas for refugees from Ebola-affected countries.

Preserving and expanding the resettlement space

Scholarship is divided on the best ways to preserve, and perhaps expand, resettlement. Focusing on Europe, Thielemann argues that a clear, binding legal framework is necessary to strengthen resettlement. In contrast, Suhrke considers that the adoption of binding resettlement targets would only be accepted by states if the targets did not required them to do more than they are already doing. Rather than legal developments, she argues, it is political leadership (and a conducive domestic and international environment) that matter. Actual developments reflect both academic perspectives, and innovations may also help preserve the resettlement space.

In recent years, litigation has been used to preserve resettlement. The EU has adopted a binding legal framework on intra-EU refugee resettlement and the European Commission has taken non-compliant states to court.  In the US, resettlement agencies have sued the Trump administration for allowing US states to refuse to resettle refugees. In January 2020, the federal court, granting a first injunction to the plaintiffs, ‘prohibited the Trump administration from allowing states and localities to veto refugee resettlement’.

Regarding political leadership, at the international level, UNHCR has focused recently on broad alliances, including with the private sector, and supported ‘complementary pathways’ of admission to expand resettlement. Some have criticised this approach for being too top-down because the actual needs of refugees and their agency are overlooked. Canada’s response to the resettlement needs of Syrians branded it the new global leader in resettlement – although resettlement advocates note that there has been no announcement of a considerable, longer-term expansion of resettlement. During the COVID-19 pandemic, while resettlement is suspended, states, UNHCR, and civil society will need to provide strong statements supporting the swift resumption of resettlement activities and an expansion of resettlement intakes.

Though innovation is not a panacea and must be given critical scrutiny, technological innovation has the potential to expand the resettlement space as well. For instance, a project run out of Stanford University, experimenting with the use of algorithms for assigning placements for refugees, suggested that such placement – allegedly at no cost to the host economy – would increase refugees’ chances of finding employment by roughly 40 to 70 per cent, thus helping resource-constrained governments and resettlement agencies find the best places for refugees to relocate.

It remains to be seen how long resettlement will be suspended due to concerns about COVID-19. As we have seen from history, when politics or pandemics have slowed down resettlement, it has had the ability to bounce back. Eyes will be on how international organisations, states, and civil society act in the coming months to shape resettlement in the future.